Life under the sea - a ruling passion

Posted: Monday, October 20, 2003

For Annette Smith, scuba diving isn't just a hobby or a simple distraction from a busy workweek.

Smith, 50, who recently made her 842nd dive in just six years, says it's an obsession.

"This is my beer," Smith said, while gearing up in her dry suit, snorkel and 40-pound oxygen tank at Sunshine Cove on Friday. "I'd be frightened of my bar tab if I didn't dive."

Smith, a data processing manager for the state's Permanent Fund Dividend Division, began her love affair with scuba diving in 1997 and now averages about 150 to 200 dives a year. She's explored the waters off the Bahamas, Costa Rica and the Virgin Islands, but she says Alaska is her favorite place to dive.

"Annette dives with whoever will dive with her," said Alice Edwards, 37, a diving buddy who accompanied her on Friday.

Smith said Sunshine Cove is one of her favorite places to dive because of the oversized, bright orange tochuina, or sea slugs, that inhabit the area.

"The largest ones ever recorded are in Sunshine Cove," Smith said, noting that while the slugs typically grow about 12 inches long, 20-inch tochuina have been found at Sunshine Cove. "They eat sea pens (octocorals that resemble feather quill pens) that are poisonous. They take the poison and use it for their natural defense."

In the last six years she's explored diving sites and sunken ships throughout Southeast. She's taken hundreds of underwater photos and collected numerous pieces of pottery and collectibles thrown overboard by passing ships.

After a 20-minute routine of strapping on about 100 pounds of scuba gear at the Sunshine Cove trailhead on Friday, Smith and Edwards headed down to the beach for a quick morning dive.

"This is my favorite lounge chair," Smith said with delight, as she and Edwards ventured into the water and submerged into a landscape of scallop and mussel beds.

Smith said the water was about 47 degrees on Friday. In the dead of winter, the temperatures drop as low as 36 degrees.

"In the winter, you come out of the water and your hair is frozen," she said.

During her expeditions under the sea, Smith said she's heard the lilting songs of humpback whales, encountered basketball-sized squid egg sacks and swam with 1,200-pound sea lions.

"The sea lions are really neat to dive with," she said. "They'll spin around you and mouth your head."

While on a dive at Sunshine Cove in February, Smith and Edwards encountered their first squid egg sack.

With her underwater camera, Smith took a snapshot of the translucent floating mass. She asked around and discovered that the hundreds of tiny balls inside were squid eggs.

"It was the strangest thing I have ever seen," Edwards said.

In March, Smith found another egg sack but realized what she had discovered.

"I thought, you know, this thing is newly-laid," realizing that momma squid could be close by.

Though the majority of her dives are for fun, Smith, along with about 20 other divers from Juneau, is a member of the underwater search and rescue team Southeast Aquatic Safety.

Team members hold monthly drills to become more familiar with the area and practice rescue procedures.

Smith said unfamiliarity with the area is one of the biggest challenges of going on search and rescue dives.

In August of 2002, she and two other rescue divers from SEAS were called out to Admiralty Island to search for Walter Jack Jr., 21, a hunter from Angoon that went missing after taking a hike alone.

Along with search teams from Angoon, Juneau's Southeast Alaska Dogs Organized for Ground Search and the Alaska State Troopers, the SEAS team searched the area of Jim's Lake, Salt Lake and Hasselborg Lake on Admiralty Island.

"We were out there for three days and were in the water pretty much the whole time," Smith said, noting the exhaustion and distress that rescue teams experience during the searches. "You get really stressed out because you only have a certain amount of time."

The search was called off after three days. Jack's body was found near Mitchell Bay about three weeks later.

SEAS was formed about three years ago, and Smith was one of its original members. When arriving at a crime scene or rescue operation site, Smith said she and other divers have to be cautious to not rush into the search. The first divers that arrive often must wait for others to show up to provide backup.

"You don't want two victims," Smith said. "The first thing is I just kind of say a little prayer to give me the strength to do this and do it right."

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